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Conservancy turns to planning for old Seven Falls land

Conserving Carolinas plans public access at the Pleasant Grove Road property on the French Broad River. Conserving Carolinas plans public access at the Pleasant Grove Road property on the French Broad River.

ETOWAH — A Hendersonville-based conservation organization has closed on the purchase of 146 acres on the French Broad River and is considering the next steps in restoring wetlands and ultimately opening the land to the public.

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Conserving Carolina, the new name of the organization formed from the merger of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and Tryon-based Pacolet Area Conservancy, bought the property on Aug. 7 from McElrath Carolina Investments LLC for $700,000. Conserving Carolina borrowed money for the purchase.
“The next step is to continue to fundraise to make ourselves whole on the purchase,” said Kieran Roe, executive director of the nonprofit.
In the meantime, Conserving Carolina officials are talking with local and state agencies and mapping out possible ways to improve the property for plants and animals and make it accessible to the public for walking and other passive recreation.
“That would definitely be our goal over the next few years,” Roe said. “We haven’t had any formal conversation with any public agency or government partner and that would certainly be an important step in the process of determining what kind of park or what kind of public access would occur.”
The agency partnered with the North Carolina Department of Parks and Recreation to acquire and then convey property that adjoined Chimney Rock State Park and is currently arranging a handoff to Henderson County of land for the Bell Trail Park.
While no formal talks are under way, the land has already piqued the interest of a state agency.
“Wildlife Resources has also asked to look at this Pleasant Grove property,” Roe said. “Which partner emerges over time remains to be seen. It’s such a great property both in terms of restoration and potential for recreation that we’re just kind of going on faith that we’ll figure out what long term public use and management of the site is best as we move along.”

The benefits of restoration are many.
“It’s located in a place with a lot of potential to restore a floodplain forest habitat,” Roe said. “There are several streams that cross the property and flow into the French Broad that we feel like could stand to be restored to a natural meandering pattern.”
Another prospect is developing the streams and wetlands into a nursery for the French Broad River’s famous muskies, the big fish scientifically known as muskellunge. The Fish and Wildlife Service stocks the river with muskies.
“They would love to see a site like this restored in such a way that there are a lot of fingers of wetlands, pools and pockets of naturalized areas,” Roe said.
Conserving Carolina will likely offset a portion of its $700,000 debt by shedding land it doesn’t consider especially sensitive.
“There are parts of the property that have less conservation value as far as we’re concerned,” Roe said, “and certainly the piece that has that clubhouse building and the other upland areas that have been more impacted over the years by development infrastructure” are less critical. “So part of that is finding probably a private buyer, even a partner. We think there may be some businesses that would find it beneficial and even advantageous to be located beside a preserved park and trails with access to the river.”
Over the past decade the former Fullam dairy property has been famous — infamous really —as part of the failed Seven Falls development, which turned out to be a massive fraud perpetrated by a developer who is now serving an 18-year sentence in federal prison. Conserving Carolina doesn’t use the Seven Falls name.
“We refer to it as the Pleasant Grove property because it’s along Pleasant Grove Road,” Roe said.
Whatever the ultimate shape of the conservation effort and public access, the remaining Seven Falls property owners will likely benefit. Buyers own lots across Pleasant Grove Road that could ultimately be resurrected as part of a scaled down subdivision.
“That whole failed real estate development was usually a bad news story for many years, so I would agree,” Roe said. “We see this as some potential good news for the community. That could be an amenity. Once upon a time, a property like this or the golf course might have been considered a private amenity within the community. This would for the public, including the residents of any residential development that is salvaged from property.”